Borax: Safe or not?

Last weekend, I had the good fortune of viewing Frog Chemical Water You, one of many wonderful films that were part of the DC Environmental Film Festival. Frog Chemical Water You is a 17-minute film on how chemicals affect our environment. I liked the film because, even though it is quite clear regarding the harsh facts of the impact of our use of chemicals on the environment, it includes simple steps we can take to reduce our chemical footprint. One step is to create our own kitchen cleaner (the recipe is included at the end of this post).

As a member of Team EcoEtsy, a group of crafters with Etsy stores who are dedicated to following sustainable practices, I have been privy to several discussions on making your own household cleaners. Recently, the topic of Sodium Borate (Borax) came up, along with the issue of how safe it is.

According the Mountain Rose Herbs’ data sheet on Borax, it is a mineral, which “naturally occurs from the repeated evaporation of seasonal lakes.” While it is natural, Mountain Rose Herbs does warn that Borax is “Not to be ingested, large doses may be fatal. May cause irritation if exposed to the skin, eyes, or if inhaled. Handle with caution, and keep away from children and pets.”

A report published in the International Journal of Toxicology stated that “Sodium Borate and Boric Acid, in concentrations of ≤ 5%, are safe as cosmeticingredients when used as currently recommended (not in food products). However, cosmetic formulations containing free Sodium Borate or Boric Acid atthis concentration should not be used on infant or injured skin.”

And a post on the EcoEtsy team listserv listed one article that advises caution in using Borax, while another says that it is safe to use in your home. Not having a chemistry background, I was not sure how to weigh and balance all of this information.

So, when two producers of Frog Chemical Water You offered to take questions after the film, I was the first one to step up to the mike and ask them about the safety of Borax. Dr. Shirlee Tan (a biologist who specializes in environmental toxicology, wildlife toxicology, and cellular and molecular biology) and Dr. Christiana Grim were very helpful. They said that overall Borax is pretty safe and has a low toxicity profile.

Because of the conflicting information I have come across in trying to determine the safety of various ingredients, I asked them for definitive sources of scientific information on chemicals. They suggested I search the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database, which I already use all the time as a resource. They also recommended looking at the Materials Safety Data Sheets for any given chemicals (here is one for Borax). Being unfamiliar with the nomenclature of Materials Safety Data Sheets, I found this resource helpful in deciphering the information.

After sifting through all of this information, I have come to the conclusion that Borax is safe to use in homemade cleaning products, as long as you use common sense in handling it. Don’t handle it if you have cuts, abrasions, or burns on your hands, don’t ingest it, and definitely don’t let your kids and pets get into it.

Recipe for Homemade All-Purpose Household Cleaner

  • 3 cups of hot water
  • 2 Tablespoons of vinegar
  • 1/4 cup of Borax (sodium borate)
  • 1 Tablespoon of phosphate-free dishwashing liquid (like Seventh Generation)

Mix well and store in a spray bottle. Use as you would any commercial cleaner.

About these ads

62 thoughts on “Borax: Safe or not?

  1. Wow. Thank you for your research!

    I posted that thread on EcoEtsy because I came across so many conflicting stories about Borax and was so confused. I’d figured our intelligent team members would have the answers.

    But your research and your answer make me feel safe to use Borax now.

    Thank You!

    Like

  2. Thank you, Karen. You inspired me to find out more about this topic. We should never assume that just because something is natural that it is safe, yet I am always skeptical when a natural substance that has been used for generations starts getting touted as dangerous. There’s so much information to sort through, but I always feel better when I am fully informed.

    Like

  3. Great clarification on the use of Borax! I use it in my dishwasher detergent but now I’ll make your household cleaner too-thanks. I looked up the MSDS for Borax after Karen’s initial post and should have shared it. You can get tons of MSDS info from Sigma Aldrich Chemical Company, including Borax. I’m a scientist and order from this company frequently.

    Like

  4. I always turn to the EWG database for information on cosmetics ingredients. But I have to say, they tend to err on the side of caution, and at times I have found that relatively safe ingredients get very high (bad) scores, because they don’t allow for different forms of the ingredients. For example, I use vegetable glycerine in some of my products, and for a while they listed glycerine as being something to avoid. This is because certain methods of creating glycerine can leave toxic residue. However, pure vegetable glycerine extracted using gentle methods is very safe. When you search for Borax, it comes up with a ton of cautions, making it look pretty toxic, but I believe it includes many different forms other than plain sodium borate.

    Like

    • Yes, I looked it up on EWG, and borax gets an F from them. (http://www.ewg.org/guides/substances/5495) It says it can range from a C to an F depending on concentration/usage. It rates it as having a high concern for developmental and reproductive toxicity. It lists some studies underneath, but no links. I’m wondering if the damage came from eating borax, or trace amounts, like what might be ingested when using borax in a dish detergent. Anyone know?

      Like

  5. Pingback: Making Earth-Friendly Practices Second-Nature « herban lifestyle

  6. I have a question:

    I mixed up a mixture of 1 cup Borax, 1 cup washing soda, 1/2 cup kosher salt and 1/2 cup fruit fresh as a dishwashing soap. On the rinse cycle i put vinegar in there. Are these ingredients safe to mix together? I only use 1 tablespoon in dishwasher.

    Like

  7. This is good information, as I would prefer to make my own cleaning agents and have been struggling to find out the right ingredients.
    But it leaves me with another question. I read that Borax is helpful to actually ingest (in small amounts) for balancing the bodies PH levels, helping with things like fibromyalgia. Is this also true? I would think if we can use it on our dishes and its safe them consuming it would be safe too? But I’d rather be sure because the wrong info could be poisonous.

    Like

  8. Pingback: Homemade Eco Friendly Laundry Detergent & Tips

  9. Question.

    All the discussions I’m seeing across the net about Borax safety are squarely focused on human safety.. which is great but I’ve seen nothing on how it effects the environment downstream of our sinks and toilets. Specifically in my case, I’m trying to make my septic field as safe as possible because I have fruit trees that grow around it. The roots do draw from the septic field. So, what happens to Borax as it is introduced to the environment? Can I consider my fruits (limes, lemons) to be safe… to be organic?
    Thanks.

    Like

    • Hi Mark. That’s a good question. I am not a biological/environmental scientist, so can’t give you a definitive answer. My post just focuses on sodium borate and, according to Wikipedia, “The term borax is used for a number of closely related minerals or chemical compounds that differ in their crystal water content,” so it depends on what you mean by “Borax.” You might want to consult with someone who specializes in organic gardening to see what the potential effects are.

      Like

      • Plants need boron as a trace mineral. Borax is an excellent source of boron for plants. We only put NPK fertilizer down today so our soils have been mined of boron by past generations of food plants, that’s why we suffer from boron deficiencies.

        Like

    • That’s another good question! Sodium borate occurs naturally in dry lake beds, so seems to exist in some quantities in fresh water. However, not being a marine biologist, I can’t tell you what the effects might be on marine life in any quantities. This seems like a good question for an environmental scientist/marine biologist. Sorry!

      Like

  10. Pingback: Greening Up the Laundry + Vinegar, Miracle Product | Here's the Diehl

  11. Pingback: Cleaning Up the Greenwash | herban lifestyle

      • Here is another bit of research I came across that sheds more light on the Borax safety question. This study by the USDHHS shows common household products most people use or have used that contain Borax.

        http://hpd.nlm.nih.gov/cgi-bin/household/brands?tbl=chem&id=1216&query=Borax&searchas=TblChemicals

        After all the research and comments I have read, I am going to buy the ingredients and try the laundry soap. It has to be at least as safe as the common brands I buy with a list of ingredients and unknowns.

        I will switch to vinegar, lemon juice and water for household cleaning also. Besides being a lower cost and safe choice now, it is a choice people who are “Prepping” or working towards Self Sufficiency can put to good use. :-) A very good thing. Thanks for your research and postings.

        Like

      • Thank you very much for the very helpful link – it’s full of great information. I agree that all of the evidence appears to point to the fact that it is perfectly safe to use in home made cleaning products. And, yes, self-sufficiency is an increasingly important skill!

        Like

  12. Pingback: Homemade Dish Soap

  13. Pingback: Homemade Dishwasher Detergent

  14. Pingback: The Borax Debate: Is It Safe? Is It Green? | A Green Routine

    • Thank you, Adrienne. I came to that conclusion given the evidence that I had seen regarding borax’s safety, which I outlined in my post. I have advanced degrees in research, so have a habit of researching ingredients to weigh and balance their pluses and minuses. If I were to be presented with solid evidence that borax is completely harmful then I would change my opinion. As far as its use in personal care products, I have not done any research on that topic, so can’t weigh in at this time. That’s something I would like to look into. Thanks!

      Like

  15. Pingback: Detoxifying your.. laundry detergent? | TheLotusRoot

  16. Pingback: Homemade Dishwashing Detergent

  17. Pingback: Is Borax Safe Or Not and Should It Really Be Used in Homemade Natural Cleaners?

      • What about borax in the pool chemical ENDURE? Is it safe? It’s a pool application at the beginning of the season to keep the pool clean. its active ingredient is sodium tetraborate pentahyrate. It takes 3 applications and you have to use PH decreaser in between because it raises the PH.

        Like

      • I’m afraid I’m not familiar with the specifics of sodium tetraborate pentahyrate. I looked it up, and it is chemically related to sodium boarate, but I am not a chemist, so really couldn’t speak to the safety of it in the context of pool cleaners. That is not my area of expertise.

        Like

  18. Argh. I make skin care products and use a very small amount — 1/2 teaspoon per recipe — for use as an emulsifier. From what I am reading, it looks like it is safe in that amount — after all, it is a little amount spread out over a larger volume of creams or lotions, i.e. Have you done research yet on the safety of sodium borate in cosmetics/skin care?

    Like

  19. Pingback: Homemade Laundry Powder: 3 Ingredients. 10 Minutes. - Keeper of the Home

    • I just took a look at the MDS you posted, and it says it’s for a Sodium Borate solution with 1-4% borax, Sodium tetraborate, which apparently is a component of boric acid (I’m no chemist, but this is what I am deriving from the sheet and a quick search on Sodium tetraborate). I’m thinking that, as with most derivatives of natural substances, it is stronger and potentially more toxic than the original substance (boric acid). Any chemists out there, please confirm or clarify!

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s